The Elusive Nexus of Creativity and Mental Illness

She insisted she killed people with her mind. She was a creator and destroyer of worlds. She also found new ways to comprehend the wisdom of Aristotle and earned four prestigious academic degrees across varying disciplines with top grades and high achievements. She struggled with a diagnosis of schizophrenia yet created a life for herself, complete with a tenured faculty position and a loving husband.

A diagnosed mental disorder can give you a different perspective on things, like this view I had recently in a hot air balloon.

A diagnosed mental disorder can give you a different perspective on things, like this view I had recently in a hot air balloon.

I’m referring to Elyn Saks, a 2009 recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant and the author of the moving memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness. Near the end of her book she cites a long list of talented artists who suffered from “affective” disorders, including what was once called manic depression. Those diagnosed with bipolar disorder and others with affective disorders can rattle off names from that list, she wrote, saying with pride their affiliation with the likes of Van Gogh and Hemingway. But Saks suffers from a “thought” disorder, the category for schizophrenics. Affective disorders involve changes in mood. Thought disorders are, not surprisingly, thought-based. When in a full-blown psychotic episode she cannot comprehend reality. Demons dance around her, unseen voices command her, and the people closest to her are imposters. Whatever mood she might be in at the time is secondary.

Too often we fear what is not familiar to us, like the dogs that kept barking at us as we flew overhead.

Too often we fear what is not familiar to us, like the dogs that kept barking at us as we flew overhead.

There aren’t many successful predecessors that a thought-disorder patient can cling to. She cites Nobel Prize-winning mathematician John Nash, whose story is told in the film A Beautiful Mind, but notes the creative thinking that led to his Nobel came before his psychosis fully formed. After that the focus was on ensuring that he could operate with some autonomy–walk across campus unsupervised, etc.–but his creative mind was largely separated from productivity.

So what lessons to my study of the creative process did I draw from Saks’ book? A number of things:

  1. While mental illness has long been coupled with creativity, when we see it in the creative arts it is typically affective disorders the artists suffer from.
  2. Creativity can flourish in a thought-disordered mind as well, but the nature of that diagnosis makes it more difficult for the creative mind to produce works resulting from the creativity.
  3. The thought-disordered mind’s creativity may not necessarily be art-focused. Nash’s thinking was surely whole-brained, but math skills are considered left-brain activities. Saks repeatedly says in her memoir that she has no artistic talent whatsoever, yet her mind clearly is creative; she has forged a new fusion of academic study combining law, philosophy and psychology in her studies as a tenured faculty member at USC.
  4. These data points remind us that creativity remains a factor of nature as much as it is nurture.

This last point can be a tricky one. In my years of study of creativity I have frequently encountered cases suggesting a direct connection between the nature of a person’s brain and their level of, and type of, creativity. I wrote about Einstein’s brain recently, and I find myself thinking of the autistic teenager who can play any song he hears, the son of two deaf parents who has taught himself to play piano and sing based solely on listening to songs on his iPod. What is tricky about citing this continuing connection between biology and creativity? It smacks against our belief that we are all creative, and the only thing holding us back from being the next Van Gogh or Hemingway is an insufficient amount of nurturing of our muse.

We can all try to see ourselves in those diagnosed with mental disorders, just as I could see our balloon's reflection in the water below me.

We can all try to see ourselves in those diagnosed with mental disorders, just as I could see our balloon’s reflection in the water below me.

Yes, we are all creative. I believe that we are all blessed with neural pathways waiting to be stimulated to magnificent creative output, whether it is the development of game theory of painting “Starry Night.” I advocate for empowering children to explore creative thinking through the arts and across all academic disciplines. But I also recognize that some people–through genetic inheritance or a random development in their brains–can see the world in ways the rest of us can’t. Sometimes we refer to it as “talent.” Whatever its label, it is real.

In The Center Cannot Hold, Saks discusses the stigma that we hold in modern society toward the mentally ill. Aware of that stigma, she spends most of the book withholding certain truths about her diagnosis and her past in job interviews, in friendships, and throughout her life. She watches TV and sees how the mentally ill are portrayed, too often as violent criminals. Starting as a law student, continuing with the publication of her book, and spurred further by her MacArthur genius grant, she has been a crusader for greater public awareness of mental illness and the need for us to lose our ignorance-driven stigmas surrounding those with mental-health diagnoses. I suspect that one way we can all become more accepting of those of us in our society with mental illness diagnoses is to celebrate the good that can come from their conditions, including the brilliant art and insights they produce.

We can’t expect every bipolar sufferer to be the next Hemingway, just as Saks instructs us not to expect a schizophrenic to become, like her, a tenured law professor. But if we let go of the notion that we are all somehow equal in our creativity, and the only thing separating us is the extent to which we fully unleash it, then perhaps we can give the truly creative mentally ill some credit, and honor them for something they have that we may not. It’s a start.

ADDENDUM ON NOVEMBER 9, 2013: I am so grateful for the insightful and honest comments I am seeing on this blog post. I love the conversation that occurs on this blog; every blogger should envy the amazing readers I have. And my apologies for the delay in response to many of the comments. WordPress for some reason didn’t alert me to most of them, so I have only now, after going back to the original post, discovered the wonderful conversation occurring here.

About Patrick Ross

I'm a writer chronicling his commitment to living an art-committed life, which included a cross-country road trip meeting with creatives of all stripes.

39 Responses to “The Elusive Nexus of Creativity and Mental Illness”

  1. I think I read this book; have to check; do you ever write about the extreme sensitivity of the writer, and emotional pain? i am a very joyous person, but close to my skin is also pain, compassion and empathy; and friends consider me very funny.

    • Thank you for the comment, and my apologies in the delay in responding. That sensitivity–one might call it extreme empathy–is one I might explore more as a writer and student of creativity. Over the last two years in my MFA program, I was repeatedly struck by how empathetic some of my fellow students were, so much so that a dark news story about someone suffering somewhere could put their own day into a downward spiral. I confess I do not have that gift or curse, at least not to that degree. I consider myself empathetic, but I also early on was forced to learn how to compartmentalize; I regret that about me, but it at least allows me to function a bit more in the face of tragedy. I believe I saw this empathetic reaction more with my MFA classmates than I do in Washington, D.C., surrounded by ambitious politicos, because the artist is by definition more attuned to his or her environment and those of others. Their art speaks to us because, in some way, they understand us.

      • Extreme empathy. YES! I have that. The difficulty of seperating myself from another’s emotions, especially that of pain. News stories don’t always affect me that way because they are but brief snippets of information, but I hid my head in Alex’s side, cried and shook uncontrollably when I inadvertently saw an image of someone getting their finger severed on “Deadliest Catch” (Alex loved that show and I would watch with him – he would try to warn me if he knew anything disturbing was coming). People that you get to know part of their lives, start to feel familiar with (even though it is all guided through editing) . . . but especially people in front of me. People I know This is why I never considered hands-on medicine for people as a career path – even though I worked at a veterinary clinic. I couldn’t handle people in pain/suffering,

        • I too worked in a veterinary clinic. It was horrifying during parvo season, seeing all of those young dogs and knowing most of them wouldn’t survive. And euthanasia was horrible, even when I knew it was in the best interests of the dog. But there was joy there too, helping birth puppies, etc. But like you I do not believe I could work in a hospital. Too much pain. And I am absolutely horrible at comforting others. At the animal hospital, the doctors would break the news to the owners while I held the animal or conducted treatment.

          I’m glad you were able to have Alex in your life to provide you that support during those times of empathy, Amy.

          • Teaching children can also be depressing because you can see how the system doesn’t allow them to become what they should be OR how their family situation puts them in a situation where they are not able to be themselves. Children have so much creativity but it is often taken out of them because often creativity is perceived as being different. It challenges the accepted norms and these norms are often almost written in rock. In Japanese there is a saying that then demon is outside. This is not the truth the real demon is onside. Once one has the confidence within then the rules outside are not so scary. It is a real pity that so many parents do not give this confidence to their kids so that they can face the world without fear of being ridiculed of being different.

            • Thank you for this comment, Paul. Interesting insight on the Japanese saying, and yes to the challenge for teachers when it comes to the significant wild card that is the child’s household. And kudos to all children brave enough to be different no matter what the adult world is telling them!

  2. Date: Mon, 4 Nov 2013 12:02:18 +0000 To: jfr_wright@hotmail.com

  3. My son is an artist, Patrick, and he definitely “sees the world” differently. For him it’s actually a visual perception that goes beyond the average. When he draws it makes me see what he sees, but I often didn’t see it before he showed it to me.

    The idea of being schizophrenic is terrifying; to actually have some chemical balance go haywire in one’s brain. A Beautiful Mind seemed to glamorize mental illness and gave the impression that mental illness went hand in hand with that man’s genius, but the truth is much more squalid and sad, I think. I’m not sure I buy the inherent craziness of artists idea. It takes focus and discipline to produce works of high art, and that is the first thing to slip for those suffering mental illness. Hemingway was an alcoholic. Alcohol was a part of the milieu he hung with. And it’s common knowledge now that alcohol is a powerful (but sly) depressant.

    There are probably societal reasons behind the supposed mental illness of many famous artists – one of which, for many, might be financial distress; the world tends to only reward those who reach the highest levels of their art, or sometimes, not at all, in the artist’s lifetime. As an artist yourself, and one with a family to support, I know you understand this (and the pressures it can create) as well as anyone.

    Really well-written and thought-provoking post, Patrick. I enjoyed it (as you can see from my lengthy comment). :)

    • Cynthia, thank you for sharing and for your insights, and apologies for the delay in replying. Your son is a great example of what makes artists who they are, whatever their mental state, diagnosis or no. A definition of creativity is making mental connections others don’t, and that can manifest itself in the visual arts quite strikingly.

      Thank you for introducing the topic of society, because those in the psychiatric profession often focus more on the nature rather than the nurture aspect of mental illnesses. And it is true that higher levels of functioning are a part of the creative process, in particular the ability to bring a project to completion and get it out to the world. Some great artists have had loved ones or colleagues who could assist in that area. Hemingway was what we might call today a high-performing or functional alcoholic, who somehow (and I mean this with incredible admiration) was able to awaken in the morning and create despite numbing his brain the night before with what we know is a depressant. Of course things did not end well for him, and all of us who adore his writing suffered as well. It is hard for me to read him and not feel pain at what he must have endured and how he left us.

      I’m glad the post provoked thinking in you, Cynthia, and that you shared it.

  4. I once worked with a dynamic artist who suffered a mental breakdown in the middle of a project. The struggle was heroic with a positive outcome after a stay in the hospital and a delicate recovery period. Fortunately, creativity lifts ups widom, insight, perspective, and awarness. The rest of the moving parts are what drive some of us crazy.

    • Thank you for sharing this story, which it seems had a happy ending. If I understand it correctly, the artist was able to return to the project after the hospitalization and treatment and resume his/her creative process. That is an uplifting story, because too often artists with mental illnesses believe that they can only truly be creative when not medicated, and unfortunately there are side effects to mediations that can impair creative thinking, at least the type of creative thinking an artist is used to tapping into.

    • has anyone read Mark Vonnegut – first book, and later memoir re schizophrenic issues; gentle man!

  5. I once worked with a dynamic artist who suffered a mental breakdown in the middle of a project. The struggle was heroic with a positive outcome after a stay in the hospital and a delicate recovery period. Fortunately, creativity lifts ups widom, insight, perspective, and awarness. The rest of the moving parts are what drive some of us crazy.

    • Oh, hello James! Thank you for reposting your comment. All, it’s worth noting that James is not just a poet but a creativity facilitator who has worked with Julia Cameron, so he brings a particularly significant perspective to this.

  6. Great post, Patrick. My non-writer day job is in a non-profit mental health agency. Although I’m in administration, not treatment, I hear daily stories about our patients and their stricken and confused families. Certainly, there is that link between creativity and “otherness of the mind” (for want of a better term), and who among us hasn’t felt a kind of awed admiration for the Hemingways and the Plaths and their unfettered, manic genius? The thing that saddens, me, though, is that mental illness even when it is under control or treatment, carries a heightened human frailty, an almost child-like vulnerability to the capriciousness of the world. The rest of us (thank God) artists can somehow weather this. We may not like it, but it doesn’t crush us. I guess what I’m saying is that, in the 21st century, it takes more than artistic talent. Once the project is ready to go public, it takes a Wall-Street-like chuptzpa and stamina to just keep your footing and keep your creative career afloat. And here,I think, is where the mad-creative mind and career often get crushed.

    • AG… I want to highlight your phrase “a heightened human frailty, an almost child-like vulnerability”… and I think this is where and why we want to distance ourselves from mental illness — because those vulnerable souls appear to us as hovering on the edge of the abyss. Our lives are sophisticated orchestrations of belief systems whose foremost job is to steer us well clear of that dark night. And yet, I believe that instinctively we understand that we’re all headed for that hole in our lives. Because ultimately that’s where we become free from the prison of our belief systems. For me, mental illness has been both a terror and an attraction. And perhaps for that reason I became a writer! Protagonists are always heading for that hole. What say ye?

      • PJ, I’m not surprised you hit on the same phrase I did. I like your take on it. Your metaphor of the dark abyss and our collective resistance to it is compelling, and is clearly universal, regardless of how a psychiatrist would apply us to the DSM. It’s clear you’ve given the subject a lot of thought, PJ. If you’ve written about your terror and attraction with mental illness before, I’d love to read it.

    • Thank you, Aine, for your unique perspective in this discussion, an artist who also works in the mental health world. The “heightened human frailty” is an interesting one. As a reader and literary critic, I was annoyed at times in Saks’ book when she would boast about her stellar feedback on papers and exams, etc. Yet it was important, because if she detected even the slightest hint that she had not achieved perfection–or even beyond that–in her work, she would dip into a deep psychosis. I received two rejections this week from literary journals for two different essays; I really had my heart set on these particular publications. They were the “we really considered it, please submit to us again” variety, and the rational part of my brain took encouragement from that. But the vulnerable artist side of me wondered why I even bother. We are all like that as human beings, but artists face rejection with more frequency than most, and when you combine that with a mental illness, it can make for a poor gumbo.

      • Thank you, Patrick. “Artists face rejection with more frequency than most.” You know, I had never thought of that before, but you’re so, so right. In our day jobs, unless we’re royally screwing up (embezzling, missing deadlines, burning down the building, etc.), we can and do feel pretty o.k. about what we’re doing. We get annual reviews, promotions, smiles in the lunch room. But as an artist, the rejections are much, much more frequent than the positive strokes. I got a few agent rejections this week, too, and I think the trick is to keep reminding oneself just how subjective (and mercenary) it all is. I mean, how many times has a friend insisted you read “this brilliant book,” and … you can barely get past page 3? But I agree: above, beside, beyond or deep within the “dark hole” of melancholia–as distinct from a serious and persistent mental illness condition (important to make that distinction; otherwise, we demean and under-serve those who fall within the latter group)–just by practicing and submitting art, we auto-place ourselves and our egos in the firing line.

  7. This is fascinating, and The Center Cannot Hold sounds like a great read. I think this topic is almost too complex for me to comment on, because I have so many thoughts I don’t know where to start. The first thing that strikes me is that creativity might not be directly related with mental illness. It’s entirely possible that people with mental health issues have the same proportion and randomness of everyone’s creative dispositions, but that their illness cause those to be expressed, utilized, and popularized in different ways. I would love to see a study done on this. I also think that “mental illness” is a strange and sticky topic. Do addictions count? Depression? Anxiety? Stress? Mild forms of them? Where’s the line? Anyway, very intriguing post!

    • Annie… I want to highlight your phrase “a heightened human frailty, an almost child-like vulnerability”… and I think this is where and why we want to distance ourselves from mental illness — because those vulnerable souls appear to us as hovering on the edge of the abyss. Our lives are sophisticated orchestrations of belief systems whose foremost job is to steer us well clear of that dark night. And yet, I believe that instinctively we understand that we’re all headed for that hole in our lives. Because ultimately that’s where we become free from the prison of our belief systems. For me, mental illness has been both a terror and an attraction. And perhaps for that reason I became a writer! Protagonists are always heading for that hole. What say ye?

      • Sorry, Annie… this reply belongs above. But I will say that “strange and sticky” is quite right. Sticky because, as I muse above, so many of us are on that slippery slope. Sticky and slippery? Our feet are slipping… and our hands are grasping for anything to hold on to! My old guru in India kept telling me, “Let go! swami, let go!”

    • Thank you, Annie. You raise an excellent point, which appears to be to what extent is the relationship between mental illness correlative or causative. It is entirely possible that those with a disorder find ways through art to communicate in unique ways, which makes us perceive them as artistic whereas someone else wasn’t put in a position to create in order to express. There is a lot of research by creativity folks like Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Douglas Eby, and Eric Maisel that shows a disproportionate representation of artists within the mentally ill community relative to the population at large, but I haven’t seen one along the lines of what you are proposing.

      As to the “line,” I would note that at one point, Saks has a doctor compare her condition to diabetes. If you eat right and take your meds, you can keep your diabetes under control. The same is true, the doctor told Saks, with your condition. Of course she spent years without a diagnosis, and then over time her diagnosis kept being changed by doctors. A simple blood test can detect diabetes; it is more of a crap shoot diagnosing mental disorders, and Saks notes how schizophrenia’s perception has changed over the last several decades, from being considered one caused by childhood to swinging to pure brain chemistry; Saks feels both are relevant.

  8. I appreciate this in-depth post and the questions it raises, Patrick.

    Like you, I believe we all have innate creative abilities, though some people do possess more natural talent in how they express that creativity. And it’s true, some of those talented people are also challenged by mental illness. Whether that difference in their brains contributes to or inhibits their talent, I don’t know. What I do know is that is that untreated mental illness has tragically cut short the lives of many talented artists — from Hemingway and Van Gogh, as you mentioned, to Sylvia Plath and Kurt Cobain, and so many others.

    You wrote, “one way we can all become more accepting of those of us in our society with mental illness diagnoses is to celebrate the good that can come from their conditions, including the brilliant art and insights they produce.” I completely agree, and would add that their individual talents can also extend beyond art and can contribute in other important ways to our society, as well.

    You and Saks rightly point out, too, that people with mental illnesses are too often portrayed in pop culture and the media as out of control or violent; while that is sometimes the case, it is also not the norm. Those with untreated mental illnesses are far more likely to be murdered or die at their own hands than they are to take another life. They are also far more likely to turn to illegal drugs and alcohol as a way to manage their moods or thoughts in the absence of quality health care. The fear of being stigmatized and labeled mentally ill often prevents people from seeking diagnosis and treatment.

    I hope that posts like yours help to raise awareness of this important issue and encourage those who are struggling to seek help. Thank you.

    • Thank you for this comment, Jessica. I am optimistic about the direction our society is moving. You see more and more celebrities coming forth and acknowledging their own mental illnesses. Still, we don’t have a sitcom that depicts someone bipolar as being as “normal” as the two gay parents on “Modern Family.” We’re not even at the 1970′s sitcom “Soap,” in which Billy Crystal played a gay man who was the only “normal” person among the cast of characters. It’s always good to have the conversation publicly, though, as we are here.

  9. Wonderful post, Patrick, and very thought-provoking.

    At one point in my life I spent a lot of time around patients with schizophrenia, and while admittedly they were all on heavy medication to control the worst of their symptoms, I found them all. without exception, to be some of the sweetest and most gentle people I had ever met. Not at all like the dangerous and unhinged psychopaths they are so often depicted as by Hollywood and the media. One young man in particular used to produce the most gorgeous abstract drawings; all flowing, organic shapes filled with beautifully elaborate filigree patterns – just looking at them could lift your heart.

    The one thing that annoys and saddens me more than anything else about the stigmatisation of mental illness is this idea that those who have it are ‘weak’ people who just ‘can’t deal with how hard life is’ and so they should ‘toughen up.’ Having spent so much time with psychiatric patients – mainly while being one myself – I can assure anyone who thinks that way that people who live with mental illness are a million miles far from being ‘weak-minded.’

    I can’t imagine how anyone with schizophrenia even gets through the average day suffering what they suffer; even with medication reducing their symptoms, it must take extraordinary strength of character to carry on living with that kind of hell going on almost constantly. If ANY record needs to be set straight, it’s this nasty and damaging delusion that mental illness is some kind of Get Out Of Life Free Card for those who are ‘too soft’ to deal with hard knocks.

    • Wow, Wendy, you hit upon the central theme of The Center Cannot Hold. As a teenager, in an after-school drug treatment program she didn’t need to be in but was forced into by her parents, the lesson of her father–just suck it up and force your way through–was reinforced. The program, in particular, suggested you were weak if you took medication. Well, the only way for Saks to keep her disorder in check is with medication, yet every time she started recovering while on medication she started going off. Saks is by her own words not an artist, but we know all too well the fact that artists often try to go off meds to recapture whatever that creative element of their mind is that becomes suppressed by medication.

      When you read Saks’ book, you realize she is one of the strongest people you could ever meet, yet she perceives herself through most of the book as weak, because she can’t “beat” her condition through sheer will. So when a patient feels that way, it’s not surprising those on the outside can as well. You are right; that is a horrible stigma.

  10. As a lifelong creative with a diagnosed mental illness (OCD/Anxiety Disorder/Depression), I am certain there is a link between the two. Not only based on my own experience but also based on my experience in knowing and associating with those of a creative bent for decades. Of course, not all creative folks have a diagnosed mental illness … but the prevalence can’t be ignored. Yes, it comes down to seeing the world in ways that “normal” people don’t, having fewer filters, feeling more deeply — highs and lows, etc.

    Back when I taught art to homeschoolers (facilitated is a better word because most kids will create, with flourish, on their own), I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said “Everyone Is An Artist.” I no longer believe that. I believe we are all creative beings — cooking a meal can be a creative act, manipulating mathematical figures can be, mopping a floor can be. But expression, through the vehicle of art, is a different animal. I would not venture to call myself an engineer or a football player or a scientist. My mind doesn’t work that way. Likewise, not everyone’s mind works in a manner that engenders what our culture has dubbed “art.” (And I’m no high-art snob. I wrote a grant through which I facilitated a therapeutic arts program for homeless men, women, and children… and was privileged to see raw, powerful work at every session. I wasn’t surprised … because most of the participants also carried some mental illness diagnosis.)

    Again, this isn’t to say that only people with mental illness create interesting work. Not at all. Barbara Kingsolver is pretty darn “normal” and The Poisonwood Bible is a damned incredible book.

    However, the link, in my opinion, is undeniable. To me, art mandates soul searching … and, to me, a soul that has been through the wringer opens itself up to become more searchable.

    So glad you tackled this subject which, as you know, is dear to my heart.

    • “A soul that has been through the wringer opens itself up to become more searchable.” And what’s that if not the prerequisite for evolution? That, in my opinion, in this day and age, is the indicator of true heroism.

    • Terri, I was hoping you’d comment on this post. You have written so bravely on your blog about your struggles with your disorder, as well as substances that those with disorders often embrace. And it is of great value that you brought to the discussion your perspective as a teacher and facilitator of creative output as well. Annie up above wonders about the link, and she raises a valid question, but I’ve spent enough time with artists over the years to favor your “undeniable” thesis. And I appreciate you addressing the element of my post that commenters have not taken on, the “talent” or “artistic temperament” element. The story of your bumper sticker resonated.

      I stole the phrase “art-committed life” from Eric Maisel. It is the third step after “artful life” and “art-filled life.” In all of those phases one is making use of their creativity, and yes it could be in cooking or gardening. We are all creative; we are not necessarily all equally creative in all ways.

  11. Daniel Jordan in his Becoming Your True self indicated anxiety can be repressed creativity; i know many things have helped me: The Baha’i Faith; good therapists, going through the grit and facing fears (I lived in Russia for 3 years), and I feel when we experience pain, it carves off the barnacles on our souls, and we love more and can be more compassionate. That said, none of it is easy, but fruitful. We all have each other, and can look at something good about each other; nicer way to fly.

  12. Reblogged this on Eve Livingston, Ph.D. and commented:
    I love having good resources to share!

  13. Thank you so much for your insight and the creative voice which carries it. It was my honor to reblog this, with confidence that it will be of help and inspiration to people I definitely want it to reach!

    Eve

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  1. The Elusive Nexus of Creativity and Mental Illn... - November 19, 2013

    […] She insisted she killed people with her mind. She was a creator and destroyer of worlds. She also found new ways to comprehend the wisdom of Aristotle and earned four prestigious academic degrees a…  […]

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